The Guardian 2 February, 2005

Ian Melrose —
the Perth businessman
behind East Timor TV ads

Bob Briton

Last September, in the lead-up to the AFL Grand Final, it was business as usual on Australia's commercial TV. Glitzy ads promoting a seemingly endless variety of goods and services peppered the high-rating programs with distracting regularity. Then a remarkable thing happened. Thirty second ads began appearing, to put the case for a fairer deal for East Timor in the sharing out of the oil and gas reserves being exploited under the seas near the coastline of the struggling new republic. A voice of conscience had been raised amid the chorus of voices for consumption. Later 60 second ads reinforced the message.

The commercials were timed to coincide with the resumption of talks between officials of the two countries on the issue. Those meetings concluded in Darwin on September 30 and were reportedly held in a cordial and encouraging atmosphere. There was an undertaking from the Australian representatives to continue the talks sometime after the Federal Elections. The tone of the proceedings was a far cry from previous exchanges between the governments in which Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had taken a bullying and dismissive stance to East Timor's complaints. Some commentators credited the TV ads for the more conciliatory attitude of the Australian team.

The ads and their effects were not heaven sent. They were paid for by Perth-based businessman Ian Melrose. The accountant became wealthy by backing a chain of optometrist stores. Friends say he never set out to become wealthy and that he remains a level-headed and generous person. Like many other Australians who have traveled to East Timor, he was struck by how little is being done to rebuild the country after decades of genocidal occupation by the Indonesian military and neglect by Portuguese colonial authorities before that. Clearly his wife shares his sympathies for the East Timorese people. She has volunteered to work as a nurse in the shaky health system being built there with scant funds.

The TV ads cost Mr Melrose around $900,000 out of a $2 million campaign budget. He commissioned a Newspoll survey of Australians that revealed that 77 per cent of us believe that the International Court of Justice should determine the issue of the disputed boundary. Only ten per cent opposed the idea while another 13 per cent were undecided. Mr Downer's claim to be representing Australia and its people in discussions up to that point were so much hot air. He spoke then and continues to speak for big capital.

Mr Melrose paid for ads in regional and capital city newspapers. He also had ads published in the press in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore and Hong Kong. "[I intend] making those countries aware of Australia's conduct and in that way putting pressure on the government to lift its game. Australia is muscling in and it's totally inappropriate", he told AAP at the time.

His efforts clearly annoyed the Australian Government. A spokesman for the Foreign Minister said that Mr Melrose could better spend his money on disadvantaged East Timorese.

So, having put the truth before the public, has the millionaire businessman got the East Timor issue out of his system? Not at all! The injustice towards East Timor continues and so does the advertising campaign. In the days prior to Australia Day, the TV ads started up again. The telecast of the Australian Open tennis tournament was interrupted with images and a message that informed viewers:

"While the Howard Government has already stolen $2 billion of gas and oil royalties, East Timor desperately needs to create a health system that works…"

Andy Alcock, chairperson of the Australia East Timor Association in South Australia has likened Mr Melrose to the wealthy 19th century British industrialist and socialist Robert Owen, who built model factories and communities in the UK. "It is not often that we see wealthy people being so generous to causes that will not lead to increased profits", Andy told the media last year.

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